Yes, Political Ideas Can Still Triumph Over Campaign Cash

New research shows party fidelity outweighs big bucks

Does money matter in American politics?

"Oh please," you say, "Do birds fly? Do fish swim? Do lobbyists wear tassel loafers?"

Not so fast. Cash may be less important to the outcome of congressional elections than many citizens believe.

That doesn't mean it's irrelevant, of course. This summer's Senate hearings on campaign finance have amply illustrated the almost desperate desire of United States political parties for contributions.

It does mean that big bucks don't equal automatic victory. Some research indicates that money affects the outcome of House races only on the margins - and that other variables, such as the partisan nature of a district, are far better predictors of electoral outcome.

The lesson of this could be a reassuring one: that voters are swayed less by clever campaign ads than by a candidate's substantive beliefs. "We should give voters a lot more credit than we do," says Robert Richie, executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy here. "They have a coherent political view of the world, and they vote coherently within an election."

A quick glance at recent spending records would lead one to believe that money actually is the end-all of politics. In 1996 elections for the House of Representatives the better-funded candidate won 90 percent of the time.

But a large percentage of these races involved an incumbent. Name recognition and the power of office make incumbents tough to beat - and thus a good bet for contributors. They didn't necessarily win because they had more money, argues Mr. Richie. Rather, they attracted more money because they were likely to win.

Party loyalty counts

Seats with no incumbent running may be a better indicator of money's power. Better-funded candidates did quite well in this electoral category in 1996, too - winning 75 percent of the time. But a Center for Voting and Democracy study points to what it calls a clearer correlation: the presidential vote. Democrats won all 18 of the open seats where President Clinton polled higher than his 49 percent national average. Republicans won all 11 open seat districts where Clinton's vote was lower than 41 percent.

Thus the report's conclusion: House districts have a distinctive political identity which money cannot reverse. One Democrat running in an open seat outspent his GOP foe by 2 to 1 - and lost. At least five open seat candidates spent more than $400,000 (a relatively large sum) and still went down to defeat.

A "well-funded general election campaign probably wins only a handful of percentage points more than a relatively poorly funded campaign does," insists Richie.

That US Congressional districts have a distinct party preference is a less obvious conclusion than one might think. Scholars say it's a reflection of a return to straight-ticket voting that's been building throughout the 1990s.

The 1970s and '80s saw a growth in the number of voters who punched their ticket for Democratic House candidates and GOP presidential contenders, or vice versa. But since 1992, US citizens have cast close to the same percentage of votes for each major party for president and Congress, notes political scientist Michael Barone in his introduction to the just-issued "Almanac of American Politics 1998."

The political math for 1994 and '96 was scrambled by the complications of the electoral college system and the candidacy of Ross Perot. That's why the US has a GOP-led Congress and a Democrat in the White House, despite the rise in straight-ticket voting.

But overall "one of the striking features of the 1996 election results is how voters in Democratic regions have become more Democratic, while voters in Republican regions have become more Republican," writes Barone.

So if money doesn't buy voter love, where did Washington's culture of cash come from? Why did Al Gore to help his party pocket checks from Buddhist nuns?

First, other political scholars insist that money matters quite a bit. Describing it as something that affects votes only on the margin rhetorically downplays its effect, they say.

The struggle for political control of America is decided on the margins - by a few votes, in a few districts. Republicans control the House by a slim edge of 10 seats out of 435, after all.

A few votes here...

"A couple of thousand votes can make a big difference," says Paul Herrnson, a University of Maryland political scholar.

Second, some of each election cycle's most hotly contest votes aren't GOP versus Democrat general elections. They're party primaries, where Democrat fights Democrat and Republican fights Republican, and funding can have a profound effect.

Finally, money is a megaphone. Big spending on ads is almost the only way a challenger can build name recognition and erode the advantages of incumbency. A large war chest may not guarantee victory. But lack of same might guarantee defeat.

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